Two gaps are better than one in 360-degree feedback

Amidst the array of slick 360-degree feedback technology features, the survey output is often an afterthought. Ultimately, of course, if the output doesn’t readily transfer to development actions, we’ve significantly underutilized the potential of the 360-degree assessment. We believe that dual-scale surveys are essential to understanding the feedback and creating specific and targeted development plans.

Most 360-degree assessments use a single scale – rating the extent to which the participant demonstrates the skill/behavior or some evaluation of the level at which he or she performs a skill/behavior.

While these instruments highlight “gaps” between rater groups, they do not indicate the relative importance of the behavior or to what extent the leader needs to perform the behavior to be successful in his or her job.

The following graphic illustrates an employee’s competency results using a single-scale, 360-degree survey instrument (i.e., rate this individual on his or her demonstration of behavior X.) The survey scale used by raters is as follows: 1-never, 2-rarely, 3-sometimes, 4-regularly, 5-always. 

At a glance, you can see that this employee’s direct reports (green bar) give her high marks across all three competencies – communication, results orientation, and strategic thinking. Her manager’s ratings are lower and close to her self-ratings. Peers’ ratings fluctuate a bit but are all 4.0 or better.

What can you conclude?

  1. This employee’s direct reports think very highly of her.
  2. In comparison to the other rater groups, the self and manager’s scores are lower.
  3. The higher scores from direct reports and peers suggest that their needs are being met.

Now using a dual-scale survey, raters are asked to what extent a behavior is currently

demonstrated by this employee and to what extent the same behavior needs to be demonstrated. The following dual-scale graphic illustrates the same competency results from the previous chart, but includes ratings for the needed level of behavior. The gray shaded area above each colored bar represents the gap between the current and need ratings.

Now what can you conclude with the addition of the ratings for the needed level of behavior?

  1. This employee’s direct reports think very highly of her – high ratings and small gaps.
  2. Peers show large gaps between current performance and needed performance for all three competencies.
  3. Though her peers rated her higher on strategic thinking than her manager (4.36 vs. 3.43), the gap they perceive is nearly as large.
  4. While this employee’s view of her current strategic thinking performance is the same as her manager’s evaluation (3.43), her sense of needed performance in this area is far below her manager’s.
  5. The self-assessment scores indicate this employee is unaware that she needs to focus on her strategic thinking skills.

Benefits of the dual scale

As we’ve illustrated, single-scale assessments can lead to misinterpretation of 360-degree feedback. While they provide a look at one “gap” (i.e., between rater groups), it is not enough information to help the 360 participant create meaningful action plans. They lack the rater’s expectations and requirements of the job and so miss an important context for the ratings of current behavior.

We’ve experienced this firsthand when coaching leaders using single-scale, 360-degree feedback instruments. The dual scale takes away the uncertainty that remains with the single-scale approach. For example, we’ve seen leaders receive a 3.0 (on a 5-point frequency scale) for a particular competency. The leader suggested that a 3.0 was all that was necessary or desired. With a single scale, it is an unknown; with a dual scale, raters answered that question. The coaching discussion moved from defensiveness in action planning to focused improvement plans. The dual scale approach has these benefits:

  • Enables raters to evaluate leaders differently based on need
  • Identifies high-priority competencies through the “need scale”
  • Highlights differences in job expectations by rater group and generally reveals patterns of various rater groups
  • Reflects the different levels of need for certain competencies depending upon level within the organization; e.g., senior leaders have higher “need scores” for strategy than middle managers
  • Uses a standard that is a “real” need of people you interact with on a regular basis rather than just an average (norm)
  • Clearly identifies areas to take action on by focusing on closing the gaps
  • Highlights strengths where small gaps appear

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